This op-ed was originally published on nj.com April 20, 2020. Gov. Phil Murphy signed the legislation two days later.
Working on the front lines in a hospital in Newark, one of the heartbreaking realities that I’ve confronted is the ruthless way COVID-19 attacks people of color.
In my experience, the virus seems to be disproportionately killing more African Americans who contract the disease than other racial and ethnic groups. However, this is just based on my anecdotal experience. It may be that cities like Newark simply have more essential workers who happen to also be Black. Maybe the plight of diseases like diabetes and hypertension may be more critical here. Maybe the problem lies in the high poverty rate. Or maybe it has something to do with the heavy reliance on public transportation.
That is why I believe it is important for Gov. Phil Murphy to sign into law bipartisan legislation requiring hospitals to report demographic data to the New Jersey Department of Health about their COVID-19 patients.
Since the outbreak of this viral pandemic, the Health Department has done a phenomenal job of providing daily statistics about the number of cases of COVID-19, deaths as a result of the virus and, more recently, hospital admissions, number of patients in intensive care and other important data.
I applaud the state’s openness and transparency because having more data gives us a sharper understanding of how this virus is impacting our state’s population.
But what’s missing from the data is demographic information. We need to know whether the virus negatively impacts certain racial or ethnic groups more than others. The legislation (S2357), sponsored by Sen. Ron Rice, would give us the data we need to have a more detailed and comprehensive astuteness of how COVID-19 is impacting these different demographic groups.
While there is much to learn about this novel coronavirus, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that our state’s most vulnerable residents are at greatest risk from COVID-19.
The viral pandemic is layered upon an existing health epidemic that has plagued cities like Newark for many years: obesity, poverty, homelessness and untreated chronic diseases, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high blood pressure is most common in non-Hispanic Black adults (54%), and Black people have the highest mortality rate from heart disease.
We also know that African-American patients are more likely than white patients to have diabetes. The risk of diabetes, according to statistics presented by the 2015 National Medical Association Scientific Assembly in Detroit, Michigan, is approximately 77% higher among African Americans than among non-Hispanic white Americans. African Americans with diabetes were also more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die from diabetes than non-Hispanic whites.
Add a novel coronavirus into the mix, and you end up with what we are facing at our hospital – young African-American patients getting sick and unfortunately dying at alarming rates.
In Newark, many younger COVID-19 patients did not realize they were at greater risk because they weren’t aware of their respective underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. And this is an abject failure of our healthcare system.
At Saint Michael’s Medical Center, where I am chief medical officer, we have a Primary and Specialty Center in Saint Michael’s Medical Center that provides high-quality care to patients who otherwise would not have access to a primary care physician in a private setting. Newark also has a number of federally qualified healthcare centers that provide excellent healthcare.
Yet, despite our nation’s and state’s attempts to expand access to healthcare, there are still far too many residents in Newark who don’t have regular contact with a healthcare provider, one who can effectively detect and treat chronic illnesses. Many are African-American, Hispanic, undocumented and homeless and these are the people at greatest risk of death when they are infected by COVID-19.
While S2357 doesn’t address the underlying issues of healthcare access for the underserved population, it will at the very least shed light on how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted these groups. That’s why I am urging Gov. Murphy to sign the legislation.
My hope is that when we finally defeat this viral pandemic, we will redouble our efforts to further expand healthcare access for our underserved residents.
Dr. Hamid Shaaban, MD, is the chief medical officer at Saint Michael’s Medical Center in Newark.